The last, unfulfilled dream of Jamie Dimon, king of Wall Street


JAMIE DIMON is restless. The boss of JPMorgan Chase has just returned from a long July 4th holiday weekend with his large and growing family: his wife, three daughters, a gaggle of grandchildren. He has little patience for the faff that accompanies a filmed interview—the reason that he, his many handlers, a film crew, your correspondent and The Economist’s editor-in-chief have gathered at the New York headquarters of America’s biggest bank. Mr Dimon does not want to loiter in the hallway for his “walking-in” shot; nor is he going to wait to be properly miked up and seated in his chair before launching into conversation about public policy. “So should we do this?” he urges.

Doing things is the Dimon way. He is impatient, opportunistic, pragmatic: the type of person to just get on with it. He has always been this way, according to a biography by Duff McDonald. When Mr Dimon’s 12th-grade calculus teacher left, he taught himself. When Sandy Weill, a Wall Street veteran, complimented a college paper he had written about a merger Mr Weill put together, he asked him for a summer job. After business school he went to work for Mr Weill at American Express—turning down offers at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley—because he didn’t think he would be content just moving money around. He wanted to build something. “Jamie approached everything with total fury,” Alison Falls McElvery, who was Mr Weill’s assistant, told Mr McDonald. “Nothing was an idea that merely lingered. It was always 90 miles an hour.”

It is at this ferocious pace that Mr Dimon has achieved every dream he has put his mind to in the 40-odd years since. He spent more than a decade under the wing of Mr Weill, by then at the bank that would become Citigroup, which was created through endless deals he helped steer through. When their partnership blew up Mr Dimon was hired to run Bank One, then America’s fifth-largest bank. At the end of 2005, after Bank One had been bought by JPMorgan Chase, he became chief executive at the bigger lender. His insistence on maintaining healthy capital buffers helped the firm navigate the biggest financial crisis in a century relatively unscathed. It is now America’s most successful bank—and by far the most valuable in the world. Under Mr Dimon’s stewardship its shareholders have earned a handsome annual return of 10.6%—double that of most other big banks, and leagues ahead of the value destruction at Citi.

All this does not seem to have slowed Mr Dimon down much. But it may have left his to-do list a tad short. The man who wanted to build has erected the banking equivalent of the Palace of Versailles or the Taj Mahal. Its investment bank ranks in the top three in almost all businesses it cares to compete in. Its commercial bank is the biggest in America. Because it is so large—and because banks in America with more than 10% of all deposits are barred from acquiring more (unless they rescue a failing bank, as JPMorgan did with First Republic in April)—it can grow only slowly. A literal construction project, his bank’s new headquarters on Park Avenue, which will house 14,000 employees when complete, barely scratches Mr Dimon’s building itch.

So he is turning his energies to other problems. He skips over the banking mini-crisis (mostly resolved) or the potential for a recession (it could be mild, or maybe not; either way, he is more worried about Ukraine and food security in Africa). He is a “red-blooded, full-throated, free-enterprise, patriotic American”, frustrated by how slow economic growth has been over the past decade.

Wanting to unleash social mobility, Mr Dimon appears genuinely animated by the cause of reducing the cost of education. He craves an open dialogue with China, which he does not think America should fear. The Chinese are not “ten feet tall”. They import oil, lack food security, are poorer and have weaker armed forces. “Maybe they have caught up in a couple of areas, but the notion that somehow America has to be that afraid of China: We don’t.” His annual letters to shareholders, once limited to thoughts on management and banking, now contain more policy ruminations than the typical American political campaign.

Plenty of powerful people simply enjoy hearing themselves talk about important topics. It would be easy to accuse Mr Dimon of the same, were it not for his allergy to time-wasting, on matters as trivial as mics or profound as the bitter end of his 15-year mentorship under Mr Weill, who was unwilling to let his protégé replace him. After being fired by Mr Weill, Mr Dimon said simply, “OK”. John Reed, another Citi executive, was stunned. “Is that it?” he asked. Mr Dimon replied, “Well, yeah. You’ve obviously decided.”

Mr Dimon’s interest in public policy, resolve, resources and ambition all point in one direction: political office. It is an idea he quickly shoots down. “There may be common skills…in terms of administration, management, leadership, but those are not uncommon.” Knowing how to navigate political arenas or campaign is harder. Mr Dimon thinks switching from business to politics is tricky. “I think it’s very hard to do. And in fact, if we just look at history, it’s almost impossible.” President Donald Trump was the exception, not the rule.

Dimon is for ever?

If not the leader of the free world, perhaps a cabinet secretary? “Maybe one day that will be in the cards,” he says. “I love my country. To me, my family comes first. But my country is right next. JPMorgan is down here,” he explains, gesturing towards the ground. The realist in him probably knows an appointment to the Treasury, the most obvious post, is unlikely. The path from Wall Street to government is not as unstrewn as it used to be. Democrats have long been suspicious of high finance, and Republicans have grown more so under the populist Mr Trump. “JPMorgan is the best contribution I can do,” Mr Dimon insists. “We have 300,000 employees. We take care of them well and we give them opportunities.” A politician couldn’t have said it better.

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